Background of sustainability


“What happens when vast population growth endangers the world’s food suppliers? Or our water? Our energy needs, climate, or environment? Or the planet’s biodiversity? What happens if all become critical at once? Just what is our future?” ANTHONY D. BARNOSKY , ELIZABETH A.HARDLY

It has always been important to look after our local environment if only so that we can pass on to our children and grandchildren an environment at least as good as we have enjoyed. Today, however, it is not just the local environment that is at risk but the global environment. The first point of contact is to ask oneself what the word “sustain” actually means. The basic definition of sustain is to strengthen or support physically, to keep in existence, maintain, continue or prolong. No one can dispute the fact that in order to gain something one has to exploit something. Human beings in order to survive need to be productive, it is from this productive side that resources are expended and utilised to achieve goals at personal, corporate level and national level. Sustainability thus involves biodiversity endurance after disturbance from human activity.

Sustainability is the ongoing process of reaching the goal of having a durable balance between environment, society and economy whereas sustainable development is the process of achieving the goal of sustainability incorporating development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. It is critical to note that he two cannot be separated from each other. The sustainability issue has become a bolder topic in the last century because of so many human persuaded problems like production of the carbon dioxide that enters the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels, coal, oil and gas, which lead to damaging climate change. Pressures from rapidly increasing world population and from over-use of the Earth’s resources are also making such problems much more acute and exacerbating the damage both to the natural world and to human communities. The perils of human induced climate change are now recognized much more widely. It is frequently described by responsible scientists and politicians as probably ‘the greatest problem the world faces’ and as a ‘weapon of mass destruction’. Global pollution demands global solutions.

Historically, the society was determined on creating wealth and money with no persuasive motive to consider then environmental implications. Ebenezer Howard in 1898 and 1902 in his book Garden Cities of Tomorrow attempted to reform the planning system by introducing “green cities” which detailed having a built environment furnished by air, sunlight and breathing room (open spaces). It is unfortunate the works of Ebenezer Howard not fully embraced, as they would have been the stepping-stone to sustainability. From Lewis Manford’s line of thinking green cities outline a more integrated foundation for an effective urban life which has its roots in sustainability.

A lot of literature in the mid-20th century pointed on the existence of environmental costs with the environment increasingly becoming depleted because of the need for energy. Many countries became depended on non-renewable resources from fossil fuels in order to power up their economic projects. According to the Hartwicks’ rule the rise of sustainability issues emanated from the need to balance off the amount of investment produced by corporates or individuals in any given economy and the stock of the non-renewable resources. In support of this notion Hamilton and Artinskon (2006) iterated that a country requires to have “positive value” which is reflected by the ability to have long run economic sustainability. Kapula (1990) in his paper highlighted that conversation and economic development should go hand in hand and that the two should never be separated.The issue of sustainable development emanated from the need to rationalize the rising problems faced globally which have triggered the issue of sustainable development and the problems are as follows:

1.1 Global Warming and Climate Change
Changes in the chemical composition of the air create a hothouse effect. A shield in the upper atmosphere prevents heat generated at the surface from escaping into the surrounding space. Global warming is an indisputable fact; in recent years the average global temperatures has risen significantly and the warming trend is accelerating. And the climate model show that even minor changes in the atmosphere can produce major effects, including widespread harvest failures, water shortages, increased spread of diseases, the rise in sea levels and the die out of large tracts of forests. Unsettled weather patterns due to warmer air masses have already caused major damage on the planet. The fact remains that global warming is igniting climate change and ecological stress and thereby reducing the chances of well-being throughout the planet. Lastly it is important to note that the rapid injection of carbon dioxide makes it impossible for the earth’s systems to adjust.

1.2 Population Growth
Overall population growth in developed countries is not as high as it is in developing countries, but numbers needs to be reduced to sustainable levels since the Earth’s size remains the same. Scientific data now indicates that humans are living beyond the carrying capacity of planet Earth and that this cannot continue indefinitely. People move out of city centers because they can no longer afford high inner-city housing costs or to find more pleasant surroundings. In addition, people who cannot find employment in rural areas migrate to the cities.
There needs to be a policy, which discourages population movement into suburbs causing urban sprawl. Instead of creating ever-expanding mega-cities, there should be an emphasis on establishing independent towns and smaller cities where there are employment opportunities.

1.3 Loss of Productive Land
Progressive reduction of the amount of land capable of producing food is another threatening trend. It is evident that the quantity of productive land is decreasing due to soil erosion, destructing, compaction, impoverishment, excessive desiccation, accumulation of toxic salts, leaching of nutritious elements, and inorganic and organic pollution owing to urban and industrial waste. In many parts of the world, this trend augurs major food shortages. The small land left is further diminishing due to further urban sprawl.

1.4 Deterioration of Air Quality
The way in which we pollute the atmosphere is very unsustainable. The amount of air that humans, and even all organisms taken together, need a minuscule compared to the size of the atmosphere that surrounds the planet. However, here is a question of quality rather than quantity. Polluted air and air of inadequate oxygen is of very little use. Yet the oxygen content of the atmosphere is diminishing, and its carbon dioxide and greenhouse content is increasing. The influx of gases due to industrial services is matched by the growing influx from nature, indirectly and unwittingly triggered by human activity.

1.5 Decrease in Water Quality
Water is a major element in the cluster of ecological unsustainability. The amount of available fresh water is diminishing rapidly; over half of the world’s population faces water shortages. Already today about a third of the world’s population doesn’t have access to sufficient supplies of safe water, and by 2015, it is projected that two thirds of the population will live under the conditions of critical water scarcity. It is also saddening to note that the worst hit continents will be Africa and the Middle East.

1.6 Over exploitation of Resources
The rising curve of human demand is beginning to exceed the descending curve of global supply. This is unprecedented. In the past, humanity’s demand has been insignificant in relation to the available resources. Even if local resources have been occasionally exploited, people could conquer new territories and find new resources. Today there are no new virgin territories left to conquer. Human consumption is nearing the planetary limits. Not the sheer size of human population is the problem, but its per capita resource use. Since the amount of land remains constant, human requirements have grown so much in the last 30 years. Today the optimum use of every square metre of the land available could satisfy the basic needs of the human population on a sustainable basis.

Eighty percent of the world’s domestic product belongs to one billion people, and the remaining twenty percent shared among almost six billion people. Poverty has not diminished in absolute numbers and this has forced the people to revisit their economic models from the sustainability perspective. This also is coupled with the instability of the world’s financial system which is viewed as a major element in the cluster of economic unsustainabilities. This deep fault line that divides human society between the rich and the poor and the ever-increasing gap between the developed and developing worlds pose a major threat to global prosperity, security and stability.
We risk the entrenchment of these global disparities and unless we act in a manner that fundamentally changes their lives the poor of the world may lose confidence in their representatives and the democratic systems to which we remain committed, seeing their representatives as nothing more than sounding brass or tinkling cymbals. It is up to us to act or sleep on this matter of unsustainability, which has become cancerous to the world’s future.

Article Produced by Mr J Chiteka (SHEQ Officer)